April 3, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed, mountainous rural area in the United States, the dark drama “The Other Lamb” has a predominantly white, mostly female cast of characters (with a few African Americans) in a polygamous religious cult, with a few brief appearances by police officers.
Culture Clash: The cult, which has isolated itself in a remote area, considers the outside world to be the enemy, and the wives sometimes have conflicts and power struggles with each other.
Culture Audience: “The Other Lamb” will appeal mostly to people who want to see an arthouse film depiction of a cult and the damaging effects of a toxic leader.
Most movies about polygamous religious cults usually focus on the leader (who’s almost always a man) or one of the spouses. But the disturbing drama “The Other Lamb” is told from the perspective of a teenage daughter of the cult leader. There’s a growing sense of gloom and doom that director Malgorzata Szumowska effectively infuses throughout the film. “The Other Lamb” isn’t a crime drama as much as it is a psychological, atmospheric portrait of someone struggling with her identity and having her individuality stifled by a group mentality that she has known her whole life.
Selah (played by Raffey Cassidy) is a teenager who’s the favorite child of the cult leader who calls himself Shepherd (played by Michiel Huisman), who definitely has a Messiah complex, even down to looking like he wants to be a modern-day Jesus. The cult is small—Shepherd has 18 female followers, some of whom are underage children—but the members of the group are extremely tight-knit, because they have isolated themselves in a remote, mountainous area that’s secluded in the woods. Why is Shepherd the only male in this cult? It’s explained in the movie, but astute viewers can figure out pretty easily why Shepherd is the only male, based on how he sees himself as the cult leader.
Although the movie doesn’t say exactly where the cult lives, they’re somewhere in the United States, because everyone has an American accent, and the cops who show up the movie are also American. (In reality, “The Other Lamb” was filmed in Ireland.) Shepherd dresses any way that he wants, but his female followers all have to follow a certain dress code that makes them look like they’re stuck in the Victorian era. They wear long, flowing robes—red for the adults, blue for the children, except during their religious ceremonies when the followers wear white. And their hair must be kept in a braided updo, except at night when they’re allowed to un-braid their hair, if Shepherd tells them to do it.
In the beginning of the film, things seem pretty blissful for Selah and the person she’s closest to in the group: Tamar (played by Ailbher Cowley), who is also also her half-sister. Selah and Tamar are shown frolicking in the woods and having fun near a majestic waterfall. And they also help take care of the group’s sheep, which are a constant presence in the movie. But, of course, all is not what it seems to be at first glance.
Selah’s mother has been dead since Selah was a baby. Selah has been told that her mother died during the childbirthing process, so Selah feels slightly jealous and insecure about the other children in the group whose mothers are still alive. That insecurity is demonstrated when Selah gets into a petty argument with Tamar, and Tamar immediately goes to her mother to take her side against Selah.
The movie also shows the inevitable jealousies and power struggles that are part of any group where people are competing to the the “favorite” of the leader. This cult is no exception, as there are simmering tensions between some of the wives and children. During the course of the movie, it becomes more apparent that the older wives feel more vulnerable to falling out of favor with Shepherd. And the inappropriate way that he looks at Selah, strokes her hair when they’re alone, and tells her how she’s special could mean that his interest in her is starting to become very sinister.
As is the case with many dangerous cult leaders, Shepherd has a very charming side, but he can also be extremely abusive and ruthless to anyone he thinks is disloyal to him. One of the ways that he has kept his followers in line is by making one of the wives an outcast because she dared to stand up to him and questioned some of the things that he was doing. It’s also mentioned that she was also punished for her “vanity.”
The “outcast wife,” whom the other members of the group call “impure” and “cursed” is Sarah (played by Denise Gough), who was one of the original cult members who joined the group at the same time that Selah’s mother did. Sarah is kept in a shack away from the rest of the group. It’s implied, based on Sarah’s bloody scars, that she’s been beaten as punishment. But something about Sarah intrigues Selah, and the teenager spends more time with the outspoken Sarah, who begins to have an influence on the way Selah thinks.
Meanwhile, one night, Selah notices that a police car is parked in front of their living quarters. She overhears a cop telling Shepherd that he has to leave, and Shepherd replies that if he doesn’t leave he’ll probably get arrested. The next day, Shepherd tells his flock that they had to leave. If they don’t leave, he says, “The outside world will destroy us and take you all away from me.”
So off they all go, trekking through the rugged terrain to find another place to live in the area, with their sheep in tow . Even though one of the women is pregnant and due to give birth very soon, Shepherd keeps them on a rigorous foot journey, with Sarah relegated to being the last person in the procession. And woe to anyone who can’t keep up. Shepherd beats and berates the pregnant woman when she collapses from exhaustion, and he orders her to keep walking.
During this grueling trek, Selah manages to steal some time away to be alone with Sarah. Selah finds out more about her mother and some secrets that change her attitude toward the only family she’s ever known. But there’s also something that happens in the movie that only viewers see (but Selah doesn’t) that shows there’s a big secret that she doesn’t know about. Sarah tries to warn Selah about Shepherd, by telling her: “His attention is like the sun—bright and glorious at first, but then it burns.” And later in the story, when Shepherd is alone with Selah, she finds out how depraved he really is.
“The Other Lamb” is not an easy film to watch if you don’t like to see vulnerable people being brainwashed, oppressed and abused. The movie can also be quite bloody, since the sheep are slaughtered for meat. And there are also scenes where Selah’s face or hands are covered in blood. She gets her menstrual period, apparently for the first time, and it terrifies her because it’s obvious that no one told her what a menstrual period is.
Because there’s an obvious villain in the story, it fuels the overarching question when watching this movie: How bad will things get and will anyone be able to break away from this cult leader’s reign of terror? There are many artsy and stunning wilderness scenes in “The Other Lamb,” which has cinematography by Michał Englert. All of the actors are convincing in their roles, with Cassidy as Selah being the obvious standout because of the emotional roller coaster ride that her character goes through in the story.
The screenplay, written by Catherine S. McMullen, also has a level of authenticity in presenting a group of people who’ve been cut off from the outside world for years. The children, who were all born into the cult, have no formal education and don’t know any better. What remains a mystery is the backstory of how these women got into the cult in the first place. However, one could can only surmise that this background was left purposely vague because the story is told from Selah’s perspective.
At times, “The Other Lamb” might be a little slow-paced for some people. And the constant presence of the sheep is a little too on-the-nose as a metaphor, since obviously the people in Shepherd’s flock act like human sheep. However, as disturbing as it sounds, “The Other Lamb” is a coming-of-age cult story that shows how a teenager comes to terms with the tightly controlled life that was chosen for her and how much control she might have over her own destiny in the future.
IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “The Other Lamb” on digital and VOD on April 3, 2020.